The Taliban hate religions of all kinds, so they viewed it as being reasonable to destroy the Buddha statues at Bamiyan. ISIS hate history, so destroyed Aleppo, Palmyra and a whole host of other Syrian historic sites and artefacts. The West were united in decrying both events as ignorant vandalism. Yet we rejoiced at the destruction of the huge statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad; and are surprised when we discover statues of Stalin here and there across Russia. Depictions of Hitler and Mussolini are, of course, beyond the pale. Yet should we destroy the ‘Arbeit Mach Frei’ gateway to Auschwitz because of our hatred of the holocaust? Presumably not.
The Colston statue is a matter of debate; but Gladstone? Baden Powell? Queen Victoria? What about Ghandi who despised black Africans? Does the fact that we disapprove of what an historic figure did, give us the right to deface or remove any memory of them? If, so who decides what is or is not acceptable? WD and HO Wills grew tobacco, so killing millions (without slave labour so far as we know.) Every monarch until the present Queen ruled over a huge Empire. We may not approve of Empires. But they did in those days. Queen Mary slaughtered hundreds because she was Roman Catholic, and Henry Vlll was responsible for the destruction of the monasteries and much of their magnificent art; and he cut off his wives’ heads when he tired of them.
We detest racism today and must stamp it out wherever it raises its ugly head. We believe in universal suffrage; but here in North Wiltshire a tiny handful of people had the vote until about 1850. People died building Stonehenge; farm labourers were virtual slaves. The anti-farm machinery riots in Wiltshire in 1830 saw 242 people killed and 1000 deported to Australia. What an outrage. The fact is that history throughout the world is full of matters which we detest and would not allow today. But they were of their time. And is there any purpose in an Orwellian attempt to eliminate any memory of them? We cannot censor our past.
Is there not anyhow, a risk that by obliterating memories of things we personally dislike about history, we are in the words of Churchill, ‘condemned to relive it.’ Is it not possible to decry any fascist tendencies which Baden Powell may have had while still praising his creation of the Scouts? Can we not commemorate Queen Victoria, without besmirching her name over Colonialism, for which she was only remotely responsible? Can we not accept that even our own ancestors within a couple of hundred years no doubt supported slavery, or in one way or another benefitted from it, disliked Votes for Women and enjoyed betting on Bear baiting. These are all wicked things, but do we really make history better by destroying our collective memory of them?
That may make us virtue signallers feel better about ourselves, but it neither changes history, nor necessarily prevents history repeating itself. We feel outraged at the mob rule which meant Churchill and the Cenotaph being boarded up for fear of anarchist vandalism; we detest the ‘woke’ removal of anyone who may in any way offend our delicate western liberal views. Whether we approve of our ancestors or not, they are in fact our ancestors. So let us focus our attention not on them but on ensuring a better, more liberal, fair and free life for our descendants - of all races and classes. Let us teach history, not obliterate it.
“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” (1984)
Black Lives Matter - of course they do, as do lives of people of whatever colour, race or religion. Discrimination of any sort cannot be allowed, and indeed under very longstanding laws it is not allowed. Not only that, (and it may be that here in North Wiltshire we are shielded from it), but my experience is that the British people are generally a pretty tolerant, easy going lot, and most definitely not by and large prone to racism, sexism, or any other kind of -ism.
So I absolutely condemn any racist outrage in America, and agree that the police officers who played any part in the death of George Floyd must face the full force of American law. All of us were sickened by what we saw on the News, and it is quite right that we should express our outrage at it. However, I am also clear that the accused must also be given the protection of the law, in particular the basic right of ‘Innocent until proved guilty.’ It is, incidentally, a matter for the Government of the USA, and not something over which we have any influence.
I strongly support the right of free expression of our views, and the right to demonstrate. Peaceful protesting has always been part of our DNA. How it can be justified under the Covid social distancing rules is another matter; but I suppose that the Police are right in their view that people were going to turn up anyhow, and short of arresting tens of thousands of peaceful protestors, there was not a great deal that they could do about it. Good British policing has always meant calming things down rather than stirring them up.
However, I am absolutely at one with the whole of British society, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister at our outrage that the legitimate desire of people to condemn racism, should have been hijacked by brutish thugs in the way that it was. Thirty or so police officers injured by flying missiles including bicycles is simply unacceptable. So are people desecrating the Cenotaph by climbing up it; so are the morons who defaced Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square. The destruction of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol was equally vandalism and the destruction of private property which we should not tolerate.
There is a debate to be had as to whether or not we should allow statues or portraits of historic figures who did things which today would be wholly unacceptable. And if the Bristol Community really do find mention of Colston so upsetting, perhaps we should quietly take his statue down and replace it with William Wilberforce. That might make us feel better, but it would not change history. And any such expunging of unacceptable history must be done by quiet discussion and decision, not by mob violence and destruction. The Policing tactic of ‘casting a blind eye’ to it must anyhow be questionable.
On the other hand, you do have to wonder why these thugs do what they do? At least part of it must be to trigger the extreme outrage which many of us feel. If that is so, then perhaps the best reaction just maybe a power hose and a bit of sweeping up of discarded protest posters as the oncoming rain dispels the protestors. An under-reaction of that kind may be just as effective as the over-reaction which our outraged instincts demand.
Black Lives Matter. Of course they do. But so does law and order and the right of peaceful citizens to decency and respect. If protests there must be, then they must also be peaceful and law-abiding.
Just as the imposition of the Lockdown caused all kinds of controversies, so will its lifting. Should primary schools (partly) reopen on 1 June? What about pre-school care which is so essential to so many working couples? What about secondary schools and colleges? If you can work from home, then do so (and good to see local company Avon Rubber reporting record productivity with their office staff all working from home.) If you cannot work from home (construction, manufacturing), then go to work, but only if proper social distancing measures are in place. When should shops reopen? Why should DIY stores and garden centres be open but not Department stores? The litmus test is a very simple one: can whatever it is happen with no, or at least limited, risk to all of those taking part?
So what about Parliament? The purpose of the House of Commons, let it never be forgotten, is to hold the Government to account; to hold Ministers’ feet to the fire; to make it difficult to do things which the voters would not want. We must not be used to rubber stamp what Ministers are predetermined to do. We are not there for ‘virtue signalling.’ The reality is that while I salute the House authorities for creating a virtual Parliament of a sort, (and the remote voting system works particularly well), it is also right to admit that it is simply not doing its job. You cannot link 650 MPs all keen to represent their constituents via the web and hope to achieve any worthwhile scrutiny. The virtual main Chamber is not only a waste of time; it also risks giving a false impression that Parliament is working.
So we need to get Parliament back properly in Westminster. It is true, nonetheless that I do have great reservations about the decision that we should all reappear in Westminster on 2 June. If you cannot safely get us all into one Chamber, and into the thirty or so Committee Rooms around the Palace; if we cannot get together in the tea rooms and libraries to talk over the great issues of the day; if our staff cannot be there; if the public are excluded; if we cannot sensibly vote in the Lobbies anyhow, and if only 50 MPs are allowed in the Chamber at any one time; if all of those things must happen, then how will it all work in reality? That’s why I abstained in the vote. I want Parliament up and running properly, but I cannot really imagine how that will be done.
I have volunteered to chair some of the Bill Committees, and the Select Committees seem to be working reasonably well virtually. So I will be there, and will report back on how it’s working.
However, I suspect that it will only restart for real when the virus has passed, or at very least when we have a vaccine, or perhaps a reliable antibody test. And that seems unlikely before the Summer. So let’s do what we can for now, but perhaps not fool ourselves that it is going to be full-blown scrutiny nor law-making. More important than that, let’s cancel the Party Conferences, and plan to start properly around 1 September when the schools go back, and then work right through until Christmas non-stop. We must nor risk being seen to be mucking about, and giving a wholly misleading impression that we are operating properly. We are not. Parliament is not there to legitimise the Government; but to scrutinise it and hold it to account. We cannot do that half-heartedly.
Parliament’s got itself into a proper old muddle. Ill thought-through rhetoric about ‘setting an example’ and ‘leading the country’ seems to ignore the fact that we are still telling the people to work from home if they possibly can; and that we have outlawed any grouping of more than six, and even then only in the open air. Meanwhile, apparently we are setting an example by corralling 650 people (plus support staff) travelling from all over Britain in the close confines of an ancient Palace.
In a crazy moment on Tuesday we queued for 45 minutes – the queue stretching a mile or so - to vote physically on doing away with virtual voting. Only MPs who were present in Westminster could vote, thereby disenfranchising the very people who truly need virtual voting- those with medical problems; those unable to leave home; husbands or wives of key workers, or those with small children. So the able bodied voted to stop the disabled and ill from voting. They are obeying the law by staying at home; but now for some perverse reason known only to Jacob Rees-Mogg they are prevented by law from doing their job. So we all get lined up like wallies in a mile long queue, then we wander one by one into the Chamber, watched like a hawk by the Chief Whip to vote for whatever their latest daft ideas may be. Well I didn’t. I voted against. Bang goes my knighthood.
But there is another outrage here. Parliament’s very purpose is to give the Government a hard time; to scrutinise what they are doing; to question their policy announcements; to examine the detail of the Bills which they are trying to get passed. Whether virtual or in person, we are not doing that either. Only 50 MPs are allowed in the Chamber at any one time (25 each side, less a few Liberals and SNP), so perhaps 12 each of Tories and Labour. Two Ministers, a Parliamentary Private Secretary and a whip or two means that there is only room for perhaps 6 backbenchers. I sneaked in on Tuesday but was only able to stay for the prayers which start the day.
Parliament should be a massive ant hill of activity- MPs and peers, staff, journalists, think tanks, lobbyists, pressure groups, visitors, meetings. We swarm around the great palace, briefing, plotting, discussing. Three main chambers and fifty or so committee rooms packed morning noon and night. Up to 10,000 people in any one day rushing around in a never-ending whirl of political activity. And the end result is actually, by and large, pretty good government and legislation.
But this fake Parliament isn’t doing any of that. All we are doing is being trotted out to endorse what the Government are doing and then sent back to our offices to get on with the emails.
The reality is that until the virus has passed, Parliament cannot operate as it should do; and it should therefore stop pretending that it can. We should (reluctantly perhaps) allow a virtual Parliament until such time as we can safely all get back together again. For what we have now is a pale shadow of what it should be; and it’s a dangerous one- because it gives the false impression it’s a real Parliament. It is not. It’s a fake Parliament, a bogus Parliament. It joins a club of fake Parliaments rejoicing in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and the Moscow Duma amongst its members.
Parliament cannot do its job properly and it is dangerous to pretend that we are.
There is a very powerful argument that when we as a Nation face a challenge like Covid-19, we must pull together as one. That is pretty much what happened under the Government of National Unity during the War. We have a common enemy - this dreadful disease which has claimed so many lives - and we must unite in defeating it; and to a pretty good degree that is exactly what we have been doing. Most of us are obeying the Social Distancing rules; most of us accept that everything the Government has done, and will now do (watch out for the PM’s Broadcast to the Nation on Sunday) is done for the best possible reasons - to save lives, look after our NHS and preserve as best we can the economy and businesses. That is the delicate tightrope which the Government, and especially the Prime Minster, are walking gingerly along; and most people would accept that they have done a reasonable job of it. We must all hang together or we’ll all hang separately.
Against that background, I am disturbed by a few emails and letters I have received, and the comments of a few observers in the media, which seem to me to be seeking party political advantage from this crisis. The SNP, for example, come close to confusing their foolish determination to secure independence for Scotland with what is actually best for their people. Other political parties here in North Wiltshire have risked being a tad party political in their comments and questions, (which, in actual fact, Keir Starmer has largely avoided in PMQs so far.) Some people have used the crisis to advance their business interests, or very often their long held ideas or prejudices. Some, for example, have allowed racist xenophobia to show through in their comments to me. Others are increasing subscribers to a variety of conspiracy theories – especially aimed at the Chinese Government. There has been an outbreak of arson attacks, for example, (not here but elsewhere in England) against mobile telephone masts, in the mistaken belief that they may have Huawei technology in them and that somehow or another destroying the masts may protect us all from the Covid Virus. Some people really are very odd.
Despite all of that, there is of course a real and important place for scrutiny of the Government. Of course it is right that MPs and the media and people alike should question the difficult decisions which the Government are having to make. That happened, in fact, throughout the Second World War. Questioning and Parliamentary debates about a whole raft of actions and decisions were robustly argued out on the floor of the House of Commons. That is perfectly healthy. And it is why I feel very uneasy about the continuing absence of proper political debate and scrutiny in Parliament. I salute the efforts of the authorities to put some kind of virtual Parliament in place. But the harsh reality is that it does not really hold Ministers to account. It’s a sort of TV quiz show, which pretty much lets them off the hook. So I look forward to the time (which may well not be until after the Summer ) when Parliament once again sits as a whole House and does its job - of giving government ministers a hard time and holding their feet properly to the fire.
We want Unity in the face of the enemy; but that must not prevent proper scrutiny.
© 2019 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.